Saturday, July 28, 2012

People Meet Native Plants Along Manhattan's High Line

If you want to feel grounded on Manhattan's West Side, climb the stairs to take a walk along the High Line. This elevated ribbon of native exuberance has proven its early skeptics wrong as people flock to the native meadow superimposed over the urban grays and grime 30 feet below.

The baseline observation, for anyone smitten by the beauty and rich diversity of native plants, is that they are almost completely missing from the world of concrete, turf and trees most people move through. Even a walk in the woods may not provide many encounters with native wildflowers, due to historic plowing, the appetites of deer, and competition from invasive species.

One of the more seductive visions for bringing this natural heritage back to the people is an urban trail bordered by native species. Locally, this concept plays out along the towpath and in a circular fashion at the Princeton High School wetland on Walnut Lane.

Back in 2000 in Durham, N.C., I organized an "adopt a trail" program in which each volunteer would tend a 20 foot section of paved trail for native species. Their work was supported by an online manual describing which plants to leave and which to weed out. The result was dazzling, but the plant knowledge and consistency of attention required was a lot to ask of volunteers.

The conversion of the elevated railroad bed into the High Line trail, from what I've heard, was publicly financed, and the private funding of maintenance insures that the plants will prosper while leaving room for everyone to walk. Adding to the buzz was a recent column by Frank Bruni of the New York Times, about government's beneficial role in the greening of New York.

This switch grass is reminiscent of a scene along the towpath in Princeton.
Looks like a particularly appealing Rudbeckia.
This bottlebrush buckeye in the canyonlands of Manhattan also grows in front of Mountain Lakes House in Princeton.

Contrast the diversity of the artificially sustained High Line with many an untended wetland, in this case the Meadowlands of NJ, which has become a monoculture of invasive Phragmitis grass. For now, as long as botanical bullies rule over large swaths of terra firma, the safest place for a native plants can end up being in unlikely spots like the High Line.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Sky Tells A Story

People who toil to change the world become so used to pushing against walls that they forget to adequately savor the small victories that come along now and then. That happens to be the first person singular form of "they", but it's a common tendency. Add to that the frenetic tempo of life and, truth be told, you find a lot of lawn chairs, hammocks and other shrines to relaxation attracting little more than bird droppings and tree litter in the backyard.

In recent weeks, though, I've occasionally been inclined to recline, abetted by the acquisition of some chaise lounges. I snatched them off the curb one night, worried that they might otherwise fall into the wrong hands and lead a more vulnerable soul into a life of elegant indolence.

The other evening, satisfied with the results of a project just completed, I decided some repose was in order, and put the new acquisition's reclining capabilities to the test.

The sky, with its subtlety and vastness, came as a surprise.If not for fatigue and a reclining chair, the sky might go unnoticed altogether. Its symphonic works of cloud and color are largely blotted out by tree canopy, chopped into fragments of little meaning or power, while we busy the eyes and mind with matters beneath the trees. How are we to be reminded of being mere specks in a big, big universe if we have no vista by which to see it?

There, before me, framed by trees, was the evening's unexpected cinema. Very experimental, with no clear plot, action or character development. It's best to have no expectations and be pleasantly surprised. Small winged characters passed across, clearly in a hurry to be somewhere else--a loose pack of blackbirds, and at some point a pair of birds with a distinctive pulsing flight rhythm, a flutter and glide, flutter and glide, until they disappeared beyond the trees. Woodpeckers and their relations fly like that.

Large solitary dragon flies passed overhead, some high up and headed straight to unknown destinations. Others flew lower, turning on a dime, using an Etch a Sketch flight pattern to snatch this or that. Cicadas sang their first songs of summer somewhere down among the trees.

I had expected bats to play a starring role in this evening sky, as they have in past summers, but not a single one appeared to patrol the tree-lined opening at dusk. Since New Jersey's resident bats have been succumbing to a fungus that attacks them during hibernation in the couple caves they all gravitate to for the winter, it's easy to be worried by their absence.

I later contacted Margaret O'Gorman of the NJ Conserve Wildlife Foundation, which has been doing heroic work to save bats from this introduced fungus. Her biologists say the relatively few bats that have survived the past two winters may have some immunity to the White Nose Syndrome, offering hope that the populations can recover. She mentioned an August 4 event about bats at the Allaire Nature Center.

All this takes us far from that little opening in the trees, but that's what a patch of sky can do. Shifting colors imply a distant sunset; winged cameo appearances and no-shows give clues about happenings far off. Leaning back, relaxing, it's still possible to do quite a bit of travel. No seatbelts are needed, just a serendipitous piece of outdoor furniture and a portal to the sky.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Canal Walk This Sunday, 10am

For those in town this weekend, I'll be leading my annual canal wildflower walk this Sunday on the towpath running along the D and R Canal State Park, beginning at Washington Rd and heading towards Harrison Street, where a loop trail winds through a savanna landscape of mature oaks and rich understory. All are welcome.

Some parking is just off Washington Road on the West Windsor side of the canal.
If there's time afterwards, we'll make a quick visit to the university's stream restoration, on the other side of Carnegie Lake from the towpath.

Quiet Botanical Battles Staged at Princeton Battlefield

July 19, and it's a quiet scene at the Princeton Battlefield on a weekday afternoon. The Mercer Oak is looking robust in its corral of sacred ground. The immense lawn is getting mowed.

The flag in the distance is at half mast, but I don't suppose it has anything to do with the quiet botanical battles going on.
American chestnut, sacked by an imported sac fungus 100 years ago, has been making a slow comeback thanks to breeders who have been patiently breeding native trees with resistance. Four of these hybrids (15/16th native, 1/16 Japanese chestnut) were planted at the Battlefield two years ago by local nut tree specialist Bill Sachs.

He said their chances of being resistant to the fungus are about 50/50, and as it turns out two of the trees have developed the symptoms of chestnut blight.
Here's what the stem with the canker looks like. (Thanks to Bill for these two photos.)
The two others continue to prosper, and have grown to 12 feet tall. That they are growing near infected trees gives some hope that they will prove to have inherited resistance.
Several mature non-native chestnuts grow near the Clark House. The shiny leaf on the right is likely a Chinese chestnut, compared to the duller surface of the native species.
Flipped over, the Chinese chestnut leaf has a silvery tinge.

Another battle is going on where two flowering dogwood trees grow along woods' edge to the left of the pillars. If they haven't flowered as profusely in recent years, it may be because they are being completely overwhelmed by what I call "the kudzu of the north", porcelain berry.
Judging from this one small branch reaching out from the thronging vines, like a hand pleading for help, the dogwoods are not far from a full surrender.

Another dogwood close by is getting overwhelmed by wild grape.

Three beautiful dogwoods could be saved by five minutes of horticultural heroism with a pair of loppers, but I doubt anyone has even noticed this botanical battle in full swing. We see here a theme reenacted endlessly on our public lands. The voluminous grass gets mowed, some weeds get whipped, but any maintenance task requiring plant knowledge is left to chance.

A fuller story of chestnuts in Princeton can be found by searching this blog for "chestnut", or clicking on this:

Monday, July 23, 2012

Joe-Pye at Princeton High

On lazy summer days, music wafting out of the Princeton high school's music rooms mixes with the plunky sound of green frogs in the wetland ecolab. With a science wing on one side and the performing arts center on the other, the flower-packed wetland serves as translator of biology into music.

Joe Pye Weed is looking highly floristic right now, and if you look closely at the shapes of the flower heads you'll see two kinds. The more flat-topped is probably spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum).
The more rounded, graceful flower head is hollow-stemmed Joe Pye Weed.
Here are the contrasting stems, with the hollow stem on the left.
Also in bloom now are a native sunflower (photo), swamp milkweed, cardinal flower, cutleaf coneflower, rose mallow hibiscus, wild senna,
 wild rice,
 water plantain, whose flower heads are so diffuse they seem impossible to photograph,

and boneset.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Two Less Lindens On Linden Lane

Linden-lined Linden Lane
Found its lindens in retreat.
Tagged and trimmed
Of life and limb,
Now two less to stem the heat.

Kentucky Coffee Tree Leaf

The size of Kentucky Coffee Tree leaves continues to amaze. Dog, looking unexpectedly Einsteinian, added for scale, next to a single leaf.
Here's another way of getting a sense for the size of the leaf, which is bipinnately compound.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Woolly Camouflage

If a leaf takes on a cottony appearance,
it might be a colony of woolly aphids, spinning a rough and ready camouflage. These are on a Tree of Heaven leaf.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Third Black Bear Sighted Last Week

A black bear was seen near this corner of Linden and Nassau last Tuesday evening, according to a "reverse 911" call we received. That's the third black bear to come through Princeton in the last couple months.

A relevant post from last month can be found at PrincetonPrimer that includes this: In spring, the one and a half year olds head out to seek new territory. Bears are highly territorial, and the young bears much prefer to seek new territories than to risk what can be very violent and debilitating battles with already established bears. Princeton's recent visits by bears are of this nature.

There's also a whimsical but useful letter about how to react in the extremely rare case of a bear attack, to be found in the Town Topics and reposted below:

In the description of what to do if you see a black bear, I was astonished to learn that, in the very rare case that a black bear attacks, the best tactic is to fight back. Princetonians have not been called upon to display such courage since 1777, when we all could conveniently claim we had yet to be born.

To bridge this gap between experience and expectation, I herein provide a translation of the wildlife officials’ instructions, customized to fit the Princetonian lifestyle:

Black bears are near-sighted, so make noise to avoid surprising it. If the bear stands up on its hind legs, don’t worry. It’s just trying to see you better. Make sure the bear has an escape route. For instance, if it is following you out of the public library, hold the door open and give it plenty of room. If you encounter the bear in the woods, or on Nassau Street, you can back away slowly, but don't turn your back to the bear. In a calm, assertive voice, put the bear on notice that you are a Princetonian fully armed with opinions, and will not hesitate to express them.

Avoid eye contact. If it doesn't run away right off, bang the pot you happen to be carrying with you, or download a "kitchenware noise" app on your iphone. Bears hate to cook, which explains their interest in garbage. Otherwise, clap your hands, raise your arms over your head, wave a jacket, all of which should make you look large and impressive.
On rare occasions, the bear will do a bluff charge, at speeds up to 35 mph. If a cafe is close by, this is a good time to duck in for a double latte. If that option is not available, then you'll need to dig deep. Fleeing will only make you appear weak. Perhaps the stirring words of a high school football coach will come to mind. In any case, stand your ground, wave your arms and shout. Pretend you're in front of town council, venting your outrage over moving the Dinky. The bear should veer away from you at the last moment, providing a bigger thrill than any 3D movie at the mall.

If the bear actually attacks, which is extremely rare, it's time to drop all remaining pretense of civility. Fight back. Don't worry about the bear's lack of access to dental care. Without asking permission, bop it on the nose. Bears' noses are 100 times more sensitive than ours. Use this sensitivity to your advantage, all the while reveling in what a great story this will make to tell the grandkids.

In case you surf the internet for more info, don't be confused by accounts of how to behave when encountering a grizzly bear out west, where the protocol is completely different and not nearly so gallant.

Update: A friend just back from the Boundary Waters area of northern Minnesota told me that a woman was attacked by a black bear up there, and had successfully gotten it to go away by punching it in the nose.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Distinguished Backyard Guests

Several distinguished pollinators paid visits recently, not least among them a monarch drawn to the golfball-sized blooms of buttonbush. Seems I started seeing monarchs a month ago, as opposed to August in previous years, which could have to do with the unusually warm winter.

The banner beebalm crop, in addition to drawing the bumbly crowd (the shiny abdomen suggests a carpenter bee rather than a bumble bee), was also graced by hummingbirds and another precision flyer, the syrinx moth, which can easily be mistaken for a small hummingbird. The syrinx, too, seems early. I found one trapped in a storm window in the middle of May.

Yesterday, a tiger swallowtail came by, lingering long on the latest buttonbush blooms to mature.
Each "ball" has hundreds of tiny flowers. The butterfly would make its way slowly back and forth around the flower, sampling each flower in turn.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Artillery Fungus

A morning dog walk provided a chance to do some garden detective work. I was talking to a neighbor when I noticed tiny black spots on her car. She had been wondering how they got there.
Closer up, they look like tiny specs of tar.
A few years back another neighbor, after finding tiny black spots accumulating on house siding, traced the culprit back to something growing in the woodchip mulch used around foundation plantings.

I checked the other side of the car. Almost no spots at all.
The side with the spots is always parked next to a flower bed mulched with woodchip mulch, which makes good habitat for artillery fungus, so-called because it can shoot spore sacs more than 15 feet. In areas of the garden close to houses or parking, it may help to use bark mulch rather than woodchips, or use the well-composted woodchip mulch available to Princeton residents at the Lawrenceville Ecological Center. Below is one of many sources of more information.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Walk That Saved a Canal

On this July 4, when independence from oil is as patriotic a goal as any, a story of how a shaded walkway in our nation's capital was saved. We got a chance to witness this greenway running through Georgetown on a recent visit.

In 1954, the Washington Post ran an editorial calling for the Connecticut and Ohio Canal to be turned into a roadway. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas responded with a letter to the editor, calling for preservation of the canal as a national park. 

He invited the editors and other reporters to walk the canal, along with authorities who could speak to the natural and cultural beauty at stake. The editors changed their minds, wrote in support of preservation, and the public response was such that in 1961 the canal was preserved as a national monument. 

A bust of Douglas stands next to the canal in the shade of an American basswood tree, from where he's able to gaze out upon a part of his environmental legacy in perpetuity.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Highschool Wetland in Full Flower

It's a good time of year for an evening walk along Walnut Street. The sunsets can put on a show across the sports fields, and the high school ecolab wetland is having one of its finer moments. These elderberry blooms are past, replaced by a good-looking crop of berries, but there's a resplendent wave of wildflower blooms coming on.
This is the view from the sidewalk. Music may be wafting out of the practice room to the right, mixing with the loose banjo string call of the green frogs.
The blue irises made quite a splash a month ago, and the soft rush (left) was looking stately.

But a larger ensemble is just warming up: wild senna, black-eyed susan, hundreds of joe-pye-weed, swamp rose, sunflower, and cut-leaf coneflower. What's particularly auspicious about this wetland's setup is that it is essentially surrounded by an observation walkway, perfect for viewing the wildflowers rising ten feet up from the wetland below.
Walk around the back of the wetland to get a look at the crayfish living in the small pool where the sump pump feeds the wetland with fresh water from the high school basement.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Chainsaw Gardening

Planting gardens in public spaces, like this raingarden at the Senior Center on Harrison Street, has its risks. With the surrounding ground maintained by crews familiar only with mowing grass and trimming shrubs, you never know when some new crew member might unknowingly unleash his weapons of vegetative suppression on the comparatively rambunctious wildflowers.

 Years back, one of the wetland gardens I was nurturing in a park in Durham, NC, had reached a fine stage of spring splendor when I arrived on the scene to find it had been completely mowed down by a clueless city employee. The first time this happened, it was like a punch to the gut--a labor of love destroyed. The garden grew back, however, and the next year when yet another new worker accidentally mowed it, my skin was a little thicker. 

This conditioning prepared me well for a sight this past May, as I came strolling down Harrison Street to see how my raingarden grew.
Not so great, as the blueberry bushes, Joe-Pye-Weed and other wildflowers were at that very moment falling victim to a chainsaw massacre.

It's always smart to be diplomatic when approaching people with chainsaws in their hands, even when they're decimating your garden. And so I walked up calmly and we discussed the situation. He was under orders from his boss, but we came to an understanding that the plants in that special spot were to be left to grow.

The next time I saw him, we laughed about it, but I know that somewhere deep down, the guts still churned.